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By now, the 2015 Toyota Prius is both a familiar shape and a fairly well-known quantity among car buyers. The mid-size five-door hatchback with the high tail and wedge shape is the most fuel-efficient car you can buy in the U.S. without a plug--and it's held that title since it was launched six years ago as a 2010 model. Toyota is expected to unveil an all-new fourth-generation Prius in fall 2015, most likely to go on sale in early 2016.
The name Prius now actually describes a range of four different vehicles. The base vehicle is now called the Prius Liftback, and there's a plug-in hybrid version of that car that looks all but identical. The last two additions to the line are the Prius V wagon, and the Prius C subcompact hatchback. But for 2015, its sixth model year on sale, the basic Prius Liftback is essentially unchanged.
And three of those four Prius models share the title of "most economical gasoline car sold in the U.S.'--with the Liftback, Plug-I, and Prius C all carrying an EPA combined rating of 50 mpg. Only electric cars are more efficient. While the rest of the world's makers have had six years to try to beat the Prius in fuel-economy ratings, none has succeeded.
It's all due to the Hybrid Synergy Drive system, which remains unchanged for 2015. Its total output is 134 horsepower, from the combination of a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and a pair of electric motor-generators. They provide electric torque to supplement torque from the engine, recharge the battery during regenerative braking or engine overrun, and can power the car solely on electricity (at speeds up to 30 mph) if you have a light right foot. Toyota has more experience building hybrids than any other maker, and its blending of regenerative braking with the conventional friction brakes is excellent. But if you need more than leisurely performance--0 to 60 mph is just under 10 seconds--you'll quickly hear the engine rev up to high speeds and howl to provide it.
Behind the wheel, drivers will hear engine speed rising and falling entirely separate from anything their feet do on the accelerator pedal. The Hybrid Synergy Drive system always modulates between its power sources to maximize efficiency, recapturing the highest amount of energy that would otherwise have been wasted. First-time Prius drivers, though, may find the experience disconcerting. As for handling and roadholding, the 2015 Prius remains as numb and ponderous as it was when it launched--even as mid-size sedan handling has improved in such cars as the Ford Fusion Hybrid. There's zero feel or feedback through the Prius electric power steering, though it corners and holds the road appropriately when the driver operates the controls. But it can feel more like driving a video game than a car with any connection to the road. (Toyota promises to address this in the next Prius, whose handling it hopes to improve considerably.)
The plug-in hybrid Prius swaps out the standard car's 1.3-kilowatt-hour nickel-metal-hydride battery pack for a 4.3-kWh lithium-ion pack, giving it a nominal 11 miles of electric range in EPA testing. Even under the relatively gentle EPA test cycles, though, the engine has to switch on at least once to power the car even though there's energy left in the pack--so only 6 miles of that range is continuous. In practice, more than modest power demand--let alone foot-to-the-floor acceleration into fast traffic on, say, an uphill freeway on-ramp--will switch on the engine, though the Prius Plug-In otherwise stays more in electric mode than the conventional Liftback hybrid model.
As a design, the Prius shape is by now well established and instantly recognizable. The five-door hatchback has a high, vertical tail, a domed roof, and a smooth front with a minimal air inlet. Its whole goal, besides containing four or five people and their goods, is to aerodynamic drag to squeeze every last mile out of each gallon of gasoline. The plug-in hybrid model looks identical, save for some trim differences and a charge-port door on the right rear fender that you could easily mistake for a gas door.
Inside, the two-level Prius dashboard layout now looks dated--though the interior design appeared futuristic and somewhat Space Age on its launch in 2009. With interior surfaces clad entirely in hard plastics, of various textures and patterns, the first thing to catch your eye is a "flying buttress" console that sweeps down from the top of the dash. While it's striking visually, in practice the storage space under it is largely invisible and hard to reach, and it will punish the kneecaps of taller drivers. Four adults will fit comfortably, five in a pinch, and the EPA defines the Prius as a mid-size car based on interior volume. The seat padding is thin, though.
The instrumentation itself contains graphs, numbers, and icons strewn across a high Information Center close to the base of the windshield. There's also a cluster of more conventional gauges and displays behind the steering wheel. Compared to the calm and easy-to-learn full-color displays of Ford's various hybrids, let alone the superb graphics of the Chevy Volt, the Prius setup now looks chaotic. The steering-wheel Touch Tracer controls are a nice touch, though. They let drivers navigate through menus on the information display without taking their hands off the wheel, and the various options appear in the cluster between two large gauges.
On the safety front, the Prius has retained its Top Safety Pick+ rating--a good one indeed for a six-year-old model. It gets top ratings in all IIHS tests except the new Small-Overlap crash that has tripped up many older models; the Prius gets an "Acceptable" in that one. It comes standard with seven airbags and can be ordered with a rear-view camera, adaptive cruise control, and lane-departure warning, along with an Intelligent Parking Assist function (though we prefer Ford's similar system).
The 2015 Toyota Prius is offered in four trim levels, confusing known as Two, Three, Four, and Five--the stripped-down Prius One can only be ordered by fleet buyers. Choices include LED headlamps, remote air conditioning, Bluetooth, and a navigation system. Packages include the feature-rich Technology Package, or the Solar Moonroof option that includes a photovoltaic solar panel to cool the cockpit by powering a ventilation fan that switches on when the Prius is parking. Note that with the less-expensive Prius C subcompact now in the family, the price of a Prius Liftback has risen to the point where the highest-priced Prius Four and Five models can now exceed $30,000 if the buyer has a heavy hand on the options sheet.
The only new option for 2015 is a Prius Special Edition model that adds a host of additional trim items to the Prius Three specification, complete with a badge to show it off. Those include a dark-metal finish on 17-inch wheels, two special paint colors (Absolutely Red and Blizzard Pearl), SofTex seats in black with dark gray accents stitching; various trim items finished in "Dark Chrome," turns signals mounted on the door mirrors, and blue footwell lighting.
In addition to the Prius Liftback and Prius Plug-In Hybrid models, the expanded vehicle family sold under the Prius name includes the Prius V wagon and the Prius C subcompact, which we have reviewed separately.
Toyota has been hard at work on the fourth generation car, though its launch has reportedly been delayed until the end of 2015. As well as more fuel-efficient, executives have said that it will be sleeker, offer better roadholding and handling, and generally bring the Prius up to date. The target for EPA combined fuel economy of the upcoming model is said to be 55 mpg, possible with a more expensive version containing a different battery that hits 60 mpg.